The day before Thanksgiving I toured a neighborhood near Rome’s central train station with a young man who spent his first months in the city homeless.  He slept on the sidewalk beside the station, washed his clothes in fountains and ate at soup kitchens when he lined up early enough and before the food ran out. He shared his story with a small group of us who wanted to know more about the homelessness that befalls many refugees in Rome. He had already lived a nightmare that stretched from Mali to Libya and Malta before he came to Italy. He was just 21 when he landed in Rome on a Ryan Air flight, an odd detail that lies outside the typical path to this city for the current influx of refugees. Otherwise, his story is not unlike thousands of other people fleeing conflict or crumbling economies in nations in Africa and in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan among other countries in crisis. One of the easiest gateways to Europe is Italy because of its proximity to north Africa and narrow passage across the Mediterranean Sea.

My tour guide still lives in a state of threatening crisis but he has applied for asylum in Italy and now lives in a shelter for refugees.  His life became more organized when he found a day facility that offers small meals, personal supplies, language classes and legal aid to refugees and migrants.

Now he works part-time at the center and he finds other odd jobs and opportunities to earn money.  Still, he lives a precarious existence.  Staying legal requires him to perpetually manage annual applications for temporary asylum.  He says it sometimes takes eight months to renew just one of three required documents.  Imagine the energy and organization needed to manage this bureaucracy while hungry and homeless and stateless.

Applying for asylum in Rome doesn’t guarantee housing or the meager benefits afforded refugees.  Record numbers of people are coming to Italy – nearly 130,000 this year alone – and many of them end up Rome.  There are not enough shelters here and applicants have to wait for housing.  It also takes time to get into the system and there’s a dearth of emergency housing for the undocumented.  In the interim, refugees sleep on the streets.

This is one of the reasons why I am working with four other volunteers on an emergency housing initiative.  We want to open a 30-bed shelter for refugees in need of immediate, temporary housing.  Ideally, the center would become a replicable prototype and eventually, a network of centers would open and share resources, such as medical care, teachers and counsellors.  We have an awesome team and it includes the young man I write about in this post.  I am confident that something will come of this effort.  But it is sobering to keep in mind that a temporary bed is just the beginning of another long and uncertain journey for asylum seekers.  Most have already suffered enormous tragedy just getting to Italy.  Applying for refugee status and finding employment necessary to become independent and to obtain legal residency is a journey far longer than the passage across the Mediterranean.


Here’s a visual narrative of the weeks not mentioned above. It starts with a trip to London, where I joined my step family for a reunion during Remembrance weekend:


I took Olvia and George to Florence.  George commanded the camera:


And a few more moments in our month:





6 thoughts on “Refugees”

    1. we are planning LOTS of time with uncle alec this summer… and the growing family. woohoo! you can pay me back and teach olivia to drive. a crash course in american history and constitutional studies is on order as well. she knows the greeks, the romans, obscure facts about early christianity, and the shifting order of the dark ages – but nothing of the new world! love you oodles, my hirsute and happy brother… xx

  1. Wow!!! I have done a lot of work with refugees in Athens I know the plight is so difficult and heart wrenching. They are often forgotten, shunned and no one remembers our responsibility towards them. I am glad to see this creative response to the crisis.

    Perhaps next year, I will return to Italy. We have been asked to partner with a group that out reaches Young girls from Europe and Africa. They are all traffic by the mafia and it is a desperate situation. ( emergency housing also needed there)

    I hope you guys have a wonderful Christmas and a blessed 2015!! Oh, we moved back into our downtown house!! Love love it!!! Mortgage free!! Woohoo!!!

    Sarah Tellis http://Www.truejusticeinternational.org


    1. sarah – so nice to hear from you. i’d love to chat more about your refugee work. we will be home this summer and i hope to include a visit to new bern. i miss the house there. it makes me feel better knowing that you are next door. drop me an email with an update on how it looks, tenants, etc… happy holidays! t

  2. happy holidays, dear friend. love every word and picture on this post – thanks for keeping us connected with you and all your goodness. lala is more lovely than ever. wish i could squeeze your beautiful boys. miss you, miss you.

    1. we hung our beautiful angel from nairobi last night and set-up the creche i bought at the woman’s cooperative… reminding me of wonderful times with you. we have decorations from beijing to delhi, too – and memories of your gorgeous family in all of these places. in the new year let’s get organised for april or june. hugs and cheer and lots of love to all of my beautiful Beletes! merry, merry, christmas!

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